Jay Som: Working Woman

Melina Duterte’s Jay Som is a long-in-the-making overnight sensation

In the winter of 2016, Melina Duterte posted Turn Into online. It was the debut long-player from the Oakland musician’s one-woman project Jay Som; it circulated among friends and peers, quickly spreading beyond her Bay Area scene. By spring, Jay Som was booked to open a U.S. tour for Mitski and Japanese Breakfast while working out a record deal with veteran indie label Polyvinyl.

“It all happened in like the span of two months,” she says. “It was just crazy.”

Duterte, now 22, has been writing songs for a decade; she played guitar as a child and studied trumpet for nine years, from elementary school through high school. “That basically took up a big part of my life instrumentally, because it’s a lot of hard work and music theory studies,” she says. “I was doing that throughout high school, and I was planning on going to college for jazz.”

But the call of her own songwriting was too strong. Duterte picked up DIY production and taught herself how to play drums, recording the song “Ghost” a week after she bought her first kit. Stand-alone tracks were posted here and there—first on MySpace, then on Bandcamp. The jagged, guitar-driven pop of Turn Into was a culmination of sorts, but, she says, “During that time, I was still figuring out my sound.”

Jay Som’s sophomore album, Everybody Works, brings her skills and voice into a refined focus. Chugging riffs and singalong hooks imbue “1 Billion Dogs,” while “The Bus Song” is a dream-pop gem of glistening guitar interplay, vocal harmonies and nuanced piano-trumpet arrangements. “Take time to figure it out,” she sings. “I’ll be the one who sticks around.” It’s a sentiment of determination that applies to interpersonal relationships as much as her work—which, even if it seems like it came out of nowhere, most definitely did not.

“I think that’s a funny thing, that as a listener you forget that the artists are actually making music constantly,” says Duterte. “It may be fresh and new to you, but we’ve been working on it for a pretty long time.”

—John Vettese